ReNEW Sci Tech used special-ed designation for cash, state report finds

ReNEW SciTech Academy violated special education law, robbing some students of special education services, and also committed state testing violations last school year, according to a state-issued report released Friday afternoon.

The improprieties have put the organization at risk of losing its six schools if it doesn’t meet the state’s specific reform goals by mid summer.

In short, the leaders of the school said some students needed extra help, which comes with extra money in the state formula. But they then didn’t provide those students with the benefits, using the money instead to shore up a $300,000 budgeting problem.

The Lens first reported trouble at the 750-student elementary school on June 1, days after two SciTech leaders abruptly resigned amid questions over testing procedures.

The Louisiana Department of Education began an investigation into the school shortly thereafter, and over the course of six months, made four primary findings. The department found ReNEW SciTech fraudulently obtained funds, failed to comply with many aspects of federal IDEA law, and violated testing procedure in the 2014-15 school year. The department also found ReNEW’s internal processes failed to identify and address the violations.

The school received its charter through the Recovery School District. Patrick Dobard, the superintendent who leads that district, said the department did not find that the violations were systemic across the ReNEW network.

The network is now under a corrective action plan that includes providing make-up special education services to dozens of students who did not receive appropriate instruction last year.

The report states SciTech school leaders inflated the amount and type of services those students needed, in an effort to bring in additional funding. The funds were used across the school and not dedicated to the students with disabilities.

“The school also attempted to fill its budget gap by newly identifying students as having special needs,” the report states.

While reviewing 76 student files, the Department found “that 55% of the students received only partial services and 25% received none of the services.”

The school also violated state testing policy. School leaders encouraged a few staff members to inappropriately view state test materials after the tests were taken, Dobard said.

The report states one teacher was asked to “look through a completed math booklet exam for the purpose of knowing what to focus on for next year.”

In an interview days after the May resignations, then-CEO Gary Robichaux told The Lens that school leaders allowed students to take internal exams multiple times and in some cases at home. At that time Robichaux said he did not believe the included state testing.

The department does not think that cheating extended to state testing.

“So it did not affect student performance as we are aware that year,” Dobard said. “but they did look at the materials inappropriately.”

The investigation ultimately resulted in a notice of breach, a warning the department issues to charters that don’t comply with their agreement.

The network has a deadline of June 30 to meet specific corrective actions the Department has outlined. This includes making up special education minutes owed to students. ReNEW must hire a monitor and state department liaison. The department named James Meza,* the former superintendent of Jefferson Parish. A contract must be finalized by the end of the month.

If the network fails to meet the terms of the corrective action plan it risks losing its charter.

There will not be financial penalties from the RSD as a result of the misuse of money. However, the report will be turned over to the U.S. Department of Education and state Inspector General.

Last fall, the ReNEW board met behind closed doors to discuss allegations of misconduct. It’s unclear if the discussion was about SciTech, but executive sessions to discuss such topics are extremely rare.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story spelled Meza’s last name incorrectly. 

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